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Martine Syms

In this interview, Martine Syms (b. 1988, Los Angeles, CA; lives in Los Angeles, CA) describes how humor, complexity, and visual culture inform her conceptual project She Mad.

Produced by by Anna Chiaretta Lavatelli / Solid Pink Productions for the Museum of Contemporary Art Chicago, 2022. Post-production.

Martine Syms video still

Martine Syms on her conceptual project She Mad

Martine Syms: She Mad Season One

As a Black artist, I’m often presented as, oh, you’re the first person to do this, or you’re the only person to do this. They’re pushing a break. And I’m really interested in pushing continuity.

And that’s also what I’m interested in, in looking at historical texts, or referencing things in art history, or media history is that you’re also changing your understanding of the past. And I think that’s one interest I have in the archive, is speaking directly to some of those histories, and invoking them, and just knowing to myself that there’s actually been continuity.

And I think in She Mad over the course of the—think I made the first one in 2015. I’m like, woohoo, seven years. In that seven years, there’s been a lot of different things I was approaching. And I used a lot of different cameras, a lot of different technologies, found footage, archival footage, reference to early silent films. So I think it kind of captures basically this moment of a really changing self image in a way.

Oftentimes, the person is blurry, they’re backlit. But since the advent of social media, most people are aware of the concept of backlighting, so they know to find their light when they’re taking photos of themselves. And the way that that’s changed, how amateur photography looks, is something I’m interested in, how a professional film and image production makes its way into everyday use. How do we visualize ourselves, and tell the story of ourselves, and why would we choose to make it look like an ad, or why wouldn’t we choose that? And that’s how I approach the way I shoot something.

The important thing about the way the videos play is that they’re not sequential and that one plays at a time, so that you’re always seeing a video in concert with still images. So there ends up being these juxtapositions of depending on where you’re standing in the show of what montage you see. And I think there used to be more diversity in terms of what images would look like when you go through—I like collecting images, so if I go to flea markets, fairs, stuff like that—

And each video in the series is an episode. And usually, the form it takes is combining some biographical element, some anecdote, some stories, something that happened with me with its double in film, television history. So in each episode, I’m looking for these slips of reality or how we make a fictional narrative our own or how we look to our life to put it into story, which is just a very human impulse, the way we understand things, but it always fails because life doesn’t actually fit into any story, and often doesn’t make sense in that way, and that the truth is often much more paradoxical. And that’s something I’m interested in.

As much as I’m interested in poetry, I’m interested in humor. I think, also, the personal is important to me, is trying to find universal themes and being extremely specific. And that’s part why in She Mad, I like the idea of trying to make myself into this kind of caricature . . . what are the things that are so specific about me that they kind of become relatable to anyone?

In my videos, I like to play with humor. I try to make myself laugh often.

MARTINE SYMS: But why is she mad? Countless reasons every day. There's a lot to be mad about. [lLaughs]